Guardians of Middle-earth Review
MOBA. Multiplayer online battle arena. It's a relatively new genre in gaming and so far it's been pretty much a PC gaming exclusive, spawning big name games like Dawn of the Ancients, League of Legends, and Heroes of Newerth, all of which I've never played. While I do occasionally dabble in PC gaming, Guardians of Middle-earth is my first hands-on exposure to a MOBA, as it will undoubtedly be for many console gamers. If you're looking for an in-depth comparison of Guardians of Middle-earth to the big PC MOBAs, sorry, I can't provide you with that. On the other hand, if you're new to MOBAs and wondering if Guardians of Middle-earth is a fun game to play on its own merits, then you've come to the right place.
We should probably start by answering the question, "what is a MOBA?" Or, at least, take a look at Guardians of Middle-earth's take on the genre. Two teams of five players square off on a map that has a base at each end, with the primary goal of destroying the other team's base while preventing the destruction of their own. Barring that, the team with the most points at the end of mwill be declared the victors. Each base is connected by one or more paths (called lanes in MOBA parlance) that are guarded by powerful automated defense towers. Each side also has barracks at the start of each of the lanes that periodically send out a small stream of AI units that will blindly pour down a lane in an attempt to wear down the enemy defenses through attrition ... and to draw tower fire away from the player-controlled guardians.
Players select their guardians, which are basically super-powered hero units, from a list of heroes and villains from the The Lord of the Rings universe (since this game has the movie license, the guardians bear a strong resemblance to the actors who portrayed them in the movies). But it's not just the major film characters filling out the roster of guardians; characters are drawn from the books' supporting cast and appendices. While Gandalf and Gollum will be instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in the films, characters such Lugbol and Thrane will only carry name recognition with the more committed Tolkien fans. At launch there are also a number of major characters suspiciously absent from the roster, but it appears that periodic DLC releases are in the plans for this game so they probably won't be absent for too long. A lot of work has obviously gone into the design of the guardians because each one has a unique set of special attacks or spells, and your choice of guardian will affect both your experience in the match and the role you'll need to play to help your team win.
In some ways it doesn't matter if you stick to the same character from match to match or try your hand at them all, because each player begins the match with a level one character. Character leveling is all in-match, so you'll need to gain experience in each battle by killing enemy soldiers and guardians, destroying enemy towers, and such in order to power-up your special attacks and to gain the ability to upgrade your side's towers and barracks. This character experience is different than the player experience you gain post match. The overall match experience determines your player level, which gives you access to specialized gem belt loadouts that give your character added bonuses in a match. You'll also gain access to potions that can give you an important boost in the heat of battle. It's a system that attempts to both keep all players on the same footing at the beginning of a match while still rewarding experienced players with a bit of an edge.
Matches are always five on five, and if there aren't enough human players available when a match is about to begin the game will fill out the team with AI guardians. The AI is passable but it tends to use a very direct approach when attacking. The AI guardians tend to try and fill their appropriate roles on a team, but they fall far short of human controlled players with a basic grasp of the game. For example, AI healers will use their healing powers in battle but they push to the front of a melee while doing so rather than hanging back out of direct harm's way.
There are two maps available at launch, a three lane map and a single lane map. Between the two I pretty much stick exclusively to the three lane version because single lane map battles feel a lot more like over-crowded, free-for-all brawls than they do tactical battles - there are a lot more strategic options available on the three lane map than simply running up the middle into the fray. Besides, the three lane map has room for a number of interesting features such as neutral monsters that can be defeated for quick experience and plants that have healing powers. I do wish that there were more maps available at launch since it's pretty much a one map deal for me now, but there's always the chance that additional maps will be made available in the future. There is enough variety to the characters and the way they play, and online battles have a way of playing out in new and unexpected ways, but some variety in the battlefield would be appreciated as well.
Anyone who's played a console game that began life as a PC strategy game knows that it can be difficult replicating the degree of control that you get on a PC with a mouse and a keyboard. I'm happy to report that control is not an issue at all with Guardians of Middle-earth. The controls are as responsive as they are in top console shooters and the control layout makes it easy to wage battle without ever thinking about the controller in your hand. Play through the game's short tutorial modes and you'll pick on the game's controls quickly enough to jump into an online battle and be ready to go.
After spending time with Guardians of Middle-earth I can see why MOBAs on PC have a dedicated following, while at the same time I'm surprised that it took so long for a serious, full-fledged MOBA to appear on consoles. The game is a blast to play and it makes such great use of the The Lord of the Rings license that it's inspired me to want to watch the movies again for the nth time.
Final Rating: 90%. All we have to decide is what game to play with the time that is given us, and Guardians of Middle-earth makes an excellent choice.